Homage to Balanchine/MariinskyBallet, Royal Opera House, London

The Mariinsky's performance of Balanchine's architectural masterpiece reduces a venerable work to a pile of rubble

There are several ways of looking at the Mariinsky Ballet's Homage to Balanchine, none of them entirely flattering. First it could be considered as a demolition job – not one executed with a wrecking ball, but a Fred Dibnah-style deconstruction that, almost lovingly, reduces something grand and venerable to so much rubble by compromising a few key bricks.

The evening opener, Serenade, to Tchaikovsky, is one of Balanchine's most architectural ballets, from the first moments when the ranked corps' outstretched, forbidding hands soften and louvre into graceful shades. Watching it is like becoming a camera, roving freely round some newly minted Parthenon. It can be analysed almost entirely in terms of flesh-and-blood metopes, pediments and friezes, the shifting scenes as much a play of light and fresh perspective as an act of choreography.

Balanchine puts in builders' jokes so elegant they seem an inevitable part of the structure, like the two sets of dancers who, by standing more upright the closer they are to each other, make a pair of flying buttresses that eventually scatter in confusion for lack of anything except each other to abut. He even decorates his ballet with the loveliest gargoyles ever made – a man, slowly advancing, with a woman pressed tightly to his back and covering his eyes with an outstretched hand.

When Serenade is well danced, this vision alone gives it an air of the metaphysical, a statement in abstract shapes about death and redemption. Even when the Mariinsky danced it, the image was beautiful. But it was no longer part of a great design, and this was what ruined a large part of the evening. The Mariinsky didn't show us around Serenade like artists, emphasising the whole, but like estate agents, pointing out a bunch of attractive features.

The torpor left by an unconvincing Serenade was so strong that we were nearly halfway through a carnivalesque second ballet before the audience remembered that it was allowed to have fun, even though Vladimir Shklyarov was clowning so hard in his efforts to remind us that he almost went over on his backside. In Rubies, pianist Ludmila Sveshnikova teased the dancers on as they laid bare the low-brow in Stravinsky's jazz-era Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra. Suddenly the girls were all Mack Sennett bathing beauties, and the boys all musclemen, or barkers, or urchins sneaking into the show under a loose piece of canvas.

Irina Golub will probably never be a huge star, because her limbs are in something like normal human proportions, but for years she has been the Mariinsky's sharpest ingenue-style ballerina. Here she made herself a one-woman fairground, whether tormenting her admirers as if she were the sparkliest, most unattainable sideshow prize, or swinging her foot high into the air like the mallet at a test-your-strength machine.

It was Rubies – tart and witty but looking somewhat displaced – that suggested another way of interpreting this Homage to Balanchine. It is normally performed as the middle section of a three-act ballet called Jewels. The first part, Emeralds, is a comparatively static dance to extracts from Fauré's Pelléas and Mélisande, where the women wear calf-length skirts (much like Serenade) and the shapes of the dance are more important than the dynamics (much like Serenade). The third part, Diamonds, is an elegant tribute to the classical tradition, with dancers dressed mostly in white, and set to a lightweight symphony.

Similarly, Homage to Balanchine finishes with Symphony in C, an elegant classically inspired dance dressed largely in white, to music by Bizet. Which raises the awful thought that the ballet company's new acting director, Yuri Fateyev, stitched it together on the theatre roof one lightning-filled night, cackling maniacally and picturing himself as the new Prometheus. But if this is a kind of "Frankenstein's Jewels", it is every bit as lopsided, pendulous and unlikely to produce offspring as that phrase suggests.

Symphony in C at least finishes the evening in style. Viktoria Tereshkina, Uliana Lopatkina, Elena Evseeva and Evgenia Obraztsova are by turns as regal, playful and tireless as the mercurial score demands. The Mariinsky's failings would be less frustrating if it weren't capable of near-perfection like this, or like the opening Swan Lake of the season.

Uliana Lopatkina is, almost literally, a dream of an Odette, her limbs seeming to move in some thicker, more supportive medium than air. So the occasional human impulse after some supernatural piece of floating, when she falls into the reassuring arms of Daniil Korsuntsev's Siegfried, for example, is like the tearing of a veil. But even beyond the reach of Lopatkina's spell this was a superb Swan Lake, with the most peripheral figures wholeheartedly living the drama, and believing the magic.

Jenny Gilbert is away

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